By Jeoffrey Maitem
As Jinky Cabardo worked at her eatery in Batanes, a chain of islands that form the Philippines’ northernmost territory, a helper relayed some alarming news: The small archipelago province had run out of rice.
This happened back in April amid talk that the people of Batanes could be caught in the middle should war break out between China and Taiwan, an island just a few hundred kilometers away, Cabardo recalled.
Neighbors began to fret that month when American servicemen landed here in tilt-rotor aircraft and vessels during joint exercises with their Philippine counterparts, Cabardo, a mother of two who is in her 40s, told a visiting BenarNews reporter.
“There was panic buying. People were hoarding food,” said Cabardo, who owns Centro, a small restaurant in downtown Basco, the quiet capital of the island chain, whose total population is less than 20,000.
People who live in this tiny province surrounded by sea in the Luzon Strait are on edge, worrying that Batanes could easily be exposed to fighting between rival superpowers should they go to war over Taiwan.
The presence of the foreign troops participating in the recent drills with Philippine troops got the locals buzzing that this was to prepare for a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. But both the Philippines and United States officially denied that the war games were connected to such a threat.
Batanes folk usually believe the news coming out of the mainland – more specifically, Manila, the country’s capital and seat of government, Cabrado said.
“So when the reports about the training came out and the Americans were seen in our province, they thought they would be [ensnared in the] conflict, so they panicked,” she recalled during the interview with BenarNews in May.
Batanes serves as a natural demarcation between the Philippines and Taiwan. These lush green islands are celebrated for their stone-crafted houses, coral walls, and charming cogon grass roofs.
Batanes is the smallest province in the Philippines. Surrounded by 4,500 square kilometers (1,737 square miles) of sea, the province’s total land mass is 203.2 square kilometers (78.4 square miles) – one third the size of Metro Manila.
Because of the tension between Taiwan and China, Batanes has gained attention lately as a potential flashpoint in the geopolitical struggle between China and the U.S., its geopolitical rival and close ally of both Taiwan and the Philippines.
Analysts say Batanes is key terrain that both sides may vie to occupy were war to break out in the Taiwan Strait.
To ensure control of the Luzon Strait, China may take control of the Batanes Islands to use them as a base for enclosing the Bashi Channel with anti-ship and anti-air missile coverage, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would require blockading and isolating [Batanes] from access by the U.S. and other allied forces. China will bombard Taiwanese defenses first before launching amphibious and air invasions,” he told BenarNews as he painted some scenarios.
‘China will make us a target’
As an ordinary citizen, former Batanes Gov. Telesforo Castillejos said he was aware of the predicament facing locals, given their province’s proximity to Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province.
“If I allow the Americans to use our island as a stepping stone to whatever activity… then China will make us a target,” said Castillejos, who grew up in Basco in a family of farmers.
“I am not an expert. But from a layman’s point of view, if the West Philippine Sea is a major concern of our country – having that international tribunal decision won by the Philippines – how much more for a small island [chain] like Batanes?” he said, referring to territories claimed by the Philippines in the contested South China Sea.
“I will not be surprised if one day, they [China] will present some old maps claiming part of their territorial waters is Batanes.”
In mid-2016, the Philippines won a landmark case before an international arbitration tribunal in its territorial dispute with China over the waterway. But Beijing so far has refused to abide by the ruling and has carried on with its military expansionism and program to build artificial islands in the maritime region.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to territorial disputes in the waterway, Beijing claims historic rights to parts that overlap with Indonesia’s EEZ.
According to Castillejos, 76, Batanes has largely been forgotten by the central government, which lately has been sending coast guard and navy patrol ships to the islands, though few and far in between.
“We cannot even secure our territorial waters. And our marine resources are being depleted by China. The same problem until now. Our government is not in a position to secure our territorial waters,” he told BenarNews.
In February this year, the Philippines, under an expanded defense pact, gave the United States access to four new military bases – a deal that one analyst described as “central” to Washington’s aim to deter any Chinese plan to attack Taiwan.
In 2014, the Philippines and U.S. signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which supplemented the Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999. The VFA provides legal cover for large-scale joint war games between the two longtime allies and stipulates that U.S. forces can only rotate in and out of the Philippines, a former American colony.
Castillejos considered President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s policies like how having the EDCA could help protect the people if conflict broke out between China and Taiwan.
“But I always pray and believe that war will not happen because no one will be a winner,” he said.
According to Batanes Vice Gov. Ignacio Villa, local authorities have contingency plans in place should something bad occur in the Taiwan Strait.
Under the plan, they would build a “tent city” that could accommodate thousands of refugees, considering that an estimated 150,000 Filipinos work in Taiwan.
“The Americans will be helping in this measure,” he said.
‘We are living peacefully here’
German Amboy Caccam, the mayor of Basco, echoed that sentiment. When the people of these islands voiced their concerns, the United States provided reassurances and pledged assistance, he said.
“First, there is the repatriation of Filipinos in Taiwan returning home. It is anticipated that Batanes will serve as a transit point,” he explained.
“Therefore, if Batanes becomes a transit point, we may face an influx of refugees. Our primary concern lies in providing sufficient food and water. While we have enough resources to sustain the existing population, we are currently unprepared to cater to the needs of refugees,” he added.
If he had to decide, said Caccam, a former public school teacher, he would not allow the Americans to stay in the country to make their province the venue for future military drills.
“I don’t like it. We are living peacefully here. We are a potential target because of their presence. But if that’s the policy of the government, we can’t do anything,” he said.
Known for its traditional low-slung houses built to withstand any typhoon, the main sources of livelihood for the people of Batanes – which is more commonly known among locals as Ivatan – are fishing and tourism.
Bishop Danilo Ulep, the head of the Catholic Church in Batanes who has lived in these islands since 2017, said the locals were hardy people who could adapt to whatever was thrown their way.
This, he said, now potentially included being a pawn in a larger geopolitical war.
The people here “possess the remarkable ability to overcome any form of adversity,” Ulep told BenarNews.
The man of the cloth described the Batanes islanders as modest and humble people “who can thrive without the luxuries commonly found on the mainland” and who show “remarkable solidarity by supporting and assisting one another.”
“They have the strength to triumph over any misfortune that comes their way. This is a quality I have personally witnessed in them,” Ulep said.